Meaninglessness in Wonder Woman

Standard

“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.”

“Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be… or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”

The Raimi Spider-Man movies and Snyder’s Superman movies offer opposing takes on morality: Spider-Man (a human being with human problems and duties) is only good when he does justice to his responsibilities, while Superman (having no limits to his power and no one to be accountable to) is good when he follows his desires.

This is why no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, Spider-Man will always have to face the cost of his actions: It is his sacrifices in order to do what is right that makes him the good guy. Superman on the other hand, when he considers what others might think in doing stuff, or when he subjects his abilities to the whims of others (Zod and Luthor, for example) does more harm than good.

Spider-Man follows Kantian categorical imperatives (nerd): what is good is good and it is always rational to do it. Superman is a Randian egoist: what is good is good only if we really desire to do it.

A striking similarity however, and I think what makes their stories a tad simplistic at times, is that it is always clear what they have to do and who they have to fight. The questions tackled are always whether they should choose to do that thing or not, and how they should do it. And the world always hangs upon the balance with them making the choice.

This is, why Wonder Woman stands out. The movie isn’t about whether we should choose to do the right thing, as doing the right thing is a given for Diana. It’s about figuring out why should we do the right thing if the right thing seems insignificant. Wonder Woman does this by establishing Diana as a well-intentioned, capable individual who always wants to do the right thing out of both responsibility and desire and then subverting the trope of the hero getting what he desires at the end.

When doing good doesn’t make things “better”

Much of the film concerns proving to the audience that Diana will always do “the right thing” given the circumstances.

Image result for wonder woman child scenee

When she desired belonging back when she was a kid, she “did the right thing” by doing what her community thinks she should do.

When she decided to step out of her comfort zone to achieve her purpose by going to Man’s World and stopping the war, she “did the right thing” by doing what gets her closer to our goal, even if it means shedding off some parts of her identity.

When she encountered what the undeniable suffering of others she “did the right thing” by coming to their aid, even if it means putting off her own agenda.

 

 

But the real drama of the story happens in the last act, where she accomplishes her goal and yet nothing changes. She didn’t get what she was promised.

Wonder Woman did all the right things according to her responsibilities (like Spider-Man), and took joy in doing so (like Superman), but the prize was absent. The War still went on. People were still dicks. Spider-Man and Superman had it easy: they at least got their reward. Diana didn’t, despite losing everything.

I personally find it more relatable as a character arc, because most of the time we know we should do good, we just can’t find a reason compelling enough to do it, especially at times we feel insignificant given the circumstances.

And this is the central question of the film: if the things we did did not yield yhe results we wanted, does that mean that those actions are worthless? Diana’s answer is no. The things we do do not matter because of the results they deserve, but because of what we believed they stand for. In our actions, we communicate the values we espoused by doing them. Sometimes they are not enough to solve the problem or change the situation, but they are important because they inspire others to rally behind a meaningful cause.

Diana may not have ended all wars by killing the General, but she has inspired her newfound friends to go above and beyond their call of duty comfort to stop the genocide of millions. She has inspired others to step up and save the day. And while in the end, she learned that stopping Ares won’t stop humans from killing each other, she learned from the actions of her friends that the capacity of human beings to sacrifice themselves and rise beyond their limitations mean that they are worth saving.

Our good actions may not yield the results they deserve. They may even mean very little to us. But even so, they can mean the world to people who pay attention to the good we are doing, and we may only save the day, but they can save the world.

This makes doing something better than doing nothing. Because while actions may not lead mathematically to desirable results, they can still inspire and move people. We just have to believe in the capacity of people to understand, and do the things needed to communicate the values we want to see in the world.

Previous superhero movies have shown us that our choices matter to the fate of the world. But Wonder Woman shows us that sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it just matters to some people. Yet, getting those people to follow our lead andthe replicate the values we fight for is at times the very thing that can win the war. Superheroes have long saved humanity on their own. What the world needs now are symbols who create more heroes. Hopefully, the film inspired many people to do something other than nothing, especially in these trying times.

Rewatching Batman v. Superman

(We could honestly end there. But I promised my Facebook friends an extended cut. If you find yourself bored after the first few paragraphs, it’s okay.)

As Wonder Woman sheds some insight on Diana’s motivations and her approach to “heroism,” we can watch Batman v. Superman in a different light. I think it is a good mental exercise when trying to learn from movies from a “cinematic universe:” isolate one character and examine his or her journey throughout the films.

This becomes difficult as Wonder Woman has only a few minutes of screentime. We don’t know what changed in her ideals between World War I and the present time. But I think we can learn a lot from comparison, and comparing Wonder Woman’s actions when she was fresh off the boat from Paradise Island to the her actions in the events leading up to the fight against Doomsday tells a lot about how her character developed.

We have learned from the Wonder Woman  movie that the Great War has shattered Diana’s assumptions on the simplicity of morality and resolving conflicts among humans. And as Batman v. Superman clearly paints a picture of a Wonder Woman who is unsurprised and unshaken with a battle between gods and monsters, it seems to suggest that for Diana, it is just another battle in an endless series of battles that is the history of “man.”

Perhaps it is because she was taken out of classical myths that she is not overwhelmed by the idea of flying men and a monster of pure rage. But even if she isn’t, it is not difficult to conclude that it might have something to do with the amount of violence and suffering she has lived through being immortal. In Batman v. Superman, we see a Diana who is burdened by sorrow, far from the idealistic and enthusiastic Diana from the beginning of Wonder Woman. It might be why she chose to live in seclusion (and I would like a film which explores Diana’s further descent into detachment). Or maybe she has remained active during the period leading up to the present, and either she was just that good at hiding it or the world wasn’t just paying attention.

But it is very likely that historical events took much toll on Diana. I can only imagine her pain for humanity during the Second World War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, and the ongoing strife in the Middle East. (Disclaimer: I’m not ignorant of the actress who portrayed her’s political beliefs, but I try not to let it distract me. Shittier people have done more movies. I don’t have to like her to enjoy and learn from her films.) If that is the case, then it further emphasizes the earlier point regarding doing good things despite its futility in the grand scheme of things.

If Wonder Woman has lost her initial idealism and enthusiasm, what could possibly she still involve herself in conflict? Where can we find the drive to continue struggling to do good things in a world that refuses to thwart us with meaninglessness and suffering?

It could always be simply her ego. Our drive to do good things could just be a conscious choice out of our desire to do things. And in fairness to Martha Kent, that does not necessarily take away from the goodness of the good things that we do. Yet, I think it is barely sufficient to sustain continuous involvement, especially if you have lived for a long time and have experienced and seen a lot of bloody truths.

Doing a few good things here and there cannot be simply fueled by selfish desires. Neither do selfish desires stop us from doing bad things. Knowing that Superman, if he follows his objectivist mother and his ghost dad, could just be following his own heart in doing the good things that he does gives legitimacy to Batman’s fears in the beginning of Batman v. Superman. I would argue that Wonder Woman is not fueled by selfish intentions given that: 1.) she still finds it in her to save the day even if the situation is not new; and 2.) from what we know, she has not instead turned to abusing her power and immortality (although it does pose an edge in the museum curator job market).

Maybe she is more Spider-Man than Superman in this sense. She still answers the call to heroism because of a sense of responsibility. This would make sense to us if we consider people from our lives who have put up with som much shit and yet, still do the things they are supposed to do because of a sense of duty. We rarely ever see them happy in doing their jobs, and yet, they do it anyway. For these people, even if the desire to derive meaning or joy from the duty has been dissolved by the cost of doing things to one’s ego, time, or convenience, doing the job still matters, because it is something beyond their own well-being. The world is shitty, their job is shitty, but the job is the job and it has to be seen through.

But maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle. Maybe Wonder Woman, in spite of the meaninglessness of helping out in the grand scheme of things, has found happiness in simply helping out over and over again. Albert Camus, using the tale of Sisyphus in his illustration, calls this “embracing the absurd.” Even if our job is pushing a boulder up a hill over and over only for it to roll downhill every time, we can still find purpose and meaning in the job. The absurdity of the job becomes us. We become absurd heroes.

There is, however, another approach to the marriage between doing good things over and over out of happiness and doing them out of the sense of duty, and it is the Aristotelian concept of virtue. Because we do certain things out of habit, it reaches a point where it ceases to be an imposed duty and becomes an integral part of ourselves. And because it is part of our identity, we reasonably derive happiness from doing such things. If we always practice honesty, we become honest people. If we always seek justice, we become just. If we always answer to the call of others, we become heroes. At that point, we don’t do it because we have to, but because it feels natural to us.

Perhaps Wonder Woman has already reached this stage of so-called “eudaemonia.” But if not, I think it is a good direction to take the character towards. If Wonder Woman only ever does battle because she feels obligated despite her acquired cynicism, or because it is the only life she has ever known, or maybe even because she just feels like it, it would be interesting to see how any of these cold and depressing (although real and warranted) motivations evolve into something which gives her happiness and affirmation. That would be an interesting struggle to explore because we all face that at different points in our life: as children, as students, as employees. And people like me, who are tired of involving themselves in a painful and meaningless world but are still compelled by some inescapable itch to do so, really need it right now.

That, or Diana’s arc could just be about a more external conflict. But if it isn’t about her addressing the roots of violence and ending all senseless wars and senseless destruction, then it’s just another meaningless superhero movie where nothing changes and no one grows and nothing is learned or gained by doing anything. If I wanted that, there’s always Guardians of the Galaxy II.

Advertisements

God’s Broken Windows: His Standards and Ours

Standard
"If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

“If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”

If only our pain were proportional to the bad that we do, we think most of the time, life would not be as bad. Yet it seems that life is not that way. It seems that whatever good we do, we suffer unjustly. “If God lived on earth,” says a Yiddish proverb, “he would have broken windows.” And why not? Do we not protest every little injustice we experience from those in positions of power? If God were on earth, we would burn effigies in front of his door like people from the olden days burnt sacrifices.

Last Friday, however, I learned a very important lesson in suffering through our discussion about the Book of Job in our World Literature class.

For so long have I viewed suffering as either punishment or a test. But I found that this was an error and perhaps, veiled by self-righteousness. It was only then did I observe that when the people I hate and disdain are suffering, too easily can I say that it is probably deserved by some form of sinful act they have done. But when it is the people I love, I am so contented in explaining it to be a mere test of faith. What is wrong with this attitude is the double standard by which I judge whether it is punishment or testing. This leads me to judge which people to comfort and which ones to stay away from.

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
    Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
    and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
    at the blast of his anger they are no more.

– Eliphaz the Temanite, Job 4:7-9

This is the same thinking employed by Job’s friends and thus leads to condemn Job for having committed a great transgression, although it has been prior established that no one is as righteous as him. But I have also learned that Job is not exempted from having such a standard. It is through this idea of suffering being punitive that Job accuses God of being unjust.

“Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
    How often does calamity come upon them,
    the fate God allots in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    like chaff swept away by a gale?
It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
    Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!
Let their own eyes see their destruction;
    let them drink the cup of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care about the families they leave behind
    when their allotted months come to an end?”

– Job, Job 21:17-21

The problem in the Book of Job is the system by which we limit God’s justice and goodness by putting our standard of goodness above Him and judging Him based on that like we judge other people. And when somehow we are afflicted by pain we claim to be undeserving of, we accuse God of not being good or just or loving. Worse, we even doubt His existence. These are all because He failed to pass our standard of goodness.

“If only I knew where to find him;
    if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
    and consider what he would say to me.
Would he vigorously oppose me?
    No, he would not press charges against me.
There the upright can establish their innocence before him,
    and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.

 

“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”

– Job, Job 23:1-9


What we fail to understand is that God cannot be judged by our standards of good and justice and love. Because He is Goodness and Justice and Love. What He does is purely good and just and loving, though it may be ugly and undesirable, and shockingly, even though when other people do it, it is to be considered evil. When you think about it, evil acts done by people are only evil because they are playing God. But surely God can play God.

In all this seemingly arbitrary characteristics of pain, we should not fear that God might be exercising His power upon us like objects of experimentation or toys. Because He loves us. He told us so. We can be sure that whatever pain we are given, undeserved it may be, is necessary. We may not know His nature and decision-making process, but we know His plan. He made it clear.

It is a hard idea to accept, especially for the hurt and suffering and oppressed: that all this somehow makes sense in the grandest scale of things. But like Job, we are permitted to mourn and weep and beat our chests at God and ask Him questions. He is real and He will answer. But I am inclined to think that we don’t. For we are so quick to lecture God about how justice should really be like.

What we should be doing is not judge God by our standards of goodness, but judge ourselves on whether we are perfectly submitting to His standards. Because whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, God knows what He is doing. There will be times when this idea would be so hard to accept as sufficient, but it’s okay. We can always come to Him and ask Him about things, for we will find Him when we seek Him. Didn’t He promise that?

When in pain, talk to God. Be angry at Him, show Him how much you are hurting. But talk to Him. If you do, out of the storm He will come and will reveal Himself to you. You will know Him and you will know you. And then, there will be peace.

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.”

– Job 42:2-3